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“I set out with a determination to make no pledges – If the Anti Masons rely upon my openly avowed opinions against Masonry one would suppose that they ought to be satisfied with the certainty of their having a full proportion of my confidences.”
Future U.S. President William Henry Harrison demonstrates exceptional political acumen by revealing his credo not to make pledges, and is keenly aware that his actions to get nominated may be used against him in the actual campaign. Harrison also resents that Anti-Masonic leader Thaddeus Stevens, is “determined to support [Daniel] Webster under any circumstances or any person but any old Jeffersonian Democrat like myself.” WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON.
Autograph Letter Signed, to William Ayres. Cincinnati, Ohio, November 25, 1835. 4 pp., 7½ x 12 in.
“I received yesterday a letter from Mr. [Thaddeus] Stevens...He declines publishing my letter because, as he says, it will create an insurmountable barrier between the Anti-Masons & myself. His object seems to be to procure from me a declaration that I will, if elected, appoint no adhering Mason to office in anti-Mason states. This appears to me to be new ground taken by the Anti-Masons and which cannot but result in injury to their cause – could any President make the declaration that he would be governed by that principle & decline to act upon the converse proposition in states where the anti-Masons were in a majority? Indeed it would be very questionable whether Pennsyl[vani]a could be called in strict propriety an anti-Masonic state. Our friend [Joseph] Ritner did not obtain a majority of the whole number of of [sic] votes taken at the last election. I am decidedly of opinion that an irreperable [sic] blow would be given to the Anti-Masonic cause by the adoption of the course recommended by Mr. Stevens. No person who would avow such principles can possibly be elected to the Presidency. He would not get an Electoral vote in one of the Western States. And I think it extremely probable that the avowal of such sentiments would be the means of concentrating an opposition in the Senate of the United States against the anti Masonic interest sufficiently strong to prevent the passage of an anti-Masonic nomination…
Mr. Stevens forgets that the President whom the anti-Masons might elect could do them little or no good if the Senate were opposed to them...I do not mean to express any opinion which should govern the appointments to office in Pennsyl[vani]a – I confine myself exclusively in my remarks to the Govt of the U States...If I understand Mr Stevens aright the only fault he now finds in my course is that of my being unwilling to pledge myself to appoint no adhering Mason to office in an anti-Masonic state. Now even if I were determined to do so I would not pledge myself to do it – for I set out with a determination to make no pledges – If the Anti Masons rely upon my openly avowed opinions against Masonry one would suppose that they ought to be satisfied with the certainty of their having a full proportion of my confidences...Can it be possible that the anti-Masons will nominate a candidate who will not get a single electoral vote in any of the Western states or South of the Potomac? I refer to Mr [John Quincy] Adams not to Mr [Daniel] Webster. Mr. Stevens’ course here is attributed to his Federalism & that he had determined to support Mr. Webster under any circumstances or any other person but any old Jeffersonian Democrat like myself. I however think that he is really sincere in saying that he would have preferred me if I could have come up to his standards of anti-Masonry. But will Mr. Webster or any of the other persons who have been thought of for the Presidency go further than I go? Perhaps Mr. Adams might – but what earthly chance could he stand to succeed…
It appears to me that Mr. Stevens does not consider all the consequences which would result from a candidate for the Presidency pledging himself in the manner he required...no other anti Mason believes more sincerely in the truth of their principles & the necessity of supporting them by all fair honourable & constitutional means than do the advocates of nullification in theirs – In South Carolina they outnumber their opponents two to one – Would he think it right to give a pledge to them similar to the one he requires for Pennsy[lvani]a – Then comes the adjoining State of Georgia – the majority of them is at this moment opposed to the advocates of nullification but it is so small as to leave no certainty that in another year it may not be found on the other side. To which of these parties then is a pledge to be given? If to the party which at present governs, when the period of fulfilment [sic] arrives it might be necessary to change it. Now is it not apparent from these facts that a President of the U States cannot act upon the same principles as the Gov[ernor] of a state? The one the Agent of 24 sovereign authorities [there were 24 states in 1835]– the other of one only – The difficulty of forming a single rule for a President is further increased from the circumstance of the immense differences in the size of the States & their perfect quality as to rights and from that too of the mode of his election (whether by the electors or by the representatives of the States) clearly pointing him out as the peculiar guardian of the interest of the weaker members of the great political family...But example is better than precept - & practice than theory – I refer to my conduct during the 13 years of my government of Indiana & the North Western Territory as furnishing some grounds by which to ascertain what it might be in the discharge of a somewhat analogous trust…
W. H. Harrison”
A significant number of Founding Fathers were Freemasons, but as politics grew increasingly democratic in the Age of Jackson, many rural Americans believed Freemasonry represented urban arrogance, secrecy, and rituals that posed a threat to Republican democracy. Starting in 1826, an anti-Masonic movement gathered momentum and had a powerful impact on American politics. The Anti-Masonic movement began in upstate New York, and within a few years, spread through Pennsylvania, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic States, eventually reaching onto the Northwest Territory of the Ohio Valley. While many resented the Anti-Masonry movement, some states elected officials to Congress and their respective state governments on the Anti-Masonic Party ticket. It was America’s first third party, and was instrumental in elevating the careers of such luminaries as William H. Seward, William Lloyd Garrison, and Thaddeus Stevens. In 1836, the year following this letter, the Anti-Masonic movement would be absorbed into the Whig Party.
Here, presidential hopeful William Henry Harrison explains his refusal to take a public Anti-Masonic stand, to make any personal pledge that might cost him the election, or to say anything that might come back to haunt him once in office.
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) was the ninth president of the United States, and one of the most important figures in the early westward expansion of the United States. Born to an aristocratic Virginia planter family, Harrison studied history, classics and medicine at Hampden-Sydney College before abruptly entering the military. Stationed in the Northwest as an ensign, he fought against the Indians, and served as General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s aide-de-camp at the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers. After leaving the army, Harrison was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory, its Congressional representative, and, in 1801, its first Governor. While serving as Governor, he led a punitive raid against Shawnee chief Tecumseh’s Indian Confederacy, and was ambushed on the Tippecanoe River. He held off the attacking force in a struggle that would help to put him in the White House years later. During the War of 1812, Harrison continued his campaign against Tecumseh, eventually killing the chief and defeating a combined British/Indian force at the 1813 Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie. Harrison was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1824 as a Pro-Adams candidate, and served from 1825-1828, when President John Quincy Adams appointed him U.S. Minister to Colombia. He was elected President on the Whig ticket in 1840. He has the dubious distinction of the shortest presidency; Harrison died of pneumonia only a month after taking office.
Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) had been a delegate to the first national convention of Anti-Masons, which met at Philadelphia in September 1830. In 1833, he was elected to the state legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket, and immediately proved an able debater and adept political operator, soon becoming the most powerful man in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Late in 1835, Stevens realized that the Anti-Masons could control the state legislature if the party allied with the Whigs. He sponsored a bill designed to suppress secret societies (such as the Masons), and, two weeks later, he was made chairman of a committee of five to investigate the “evils of Free Masonry.”
Both the Whigs and the Anti-Masons nominated Harrison at their conventions in December. Stevens refused to accept Harrison’s nomination solely because Harrison would not pledge to be Anti-Mason, and called for a National Anti-Masonic Convention to be held in May 1836. With no popular support for such a move, Stevens reluctantly endorsed Harrison. Martin Van Buren won the election, but the Whigs showed wide national support. In late 1838, the Anti-Masons endorsed Harrison, in effect merging the two parties. Having been promised a cabinet post, Stevens campaigned vigorously for Harrison. After Harrison died a month after his inauguration, Stevens dropped out of politics and returned to his law practice. He later served in Congress, first as a Whig (1849-1853), then as a Republican (1859-1868), and gained national recognition during Reconstruction and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Stevens died just three months after the trial ended.
William Ayres (1788-1856) was a celebrated lawyer, and member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1833-1835. In 1834, Ayres and colleague Thaddeus Stevens became fast friends while working together for the establishment of a common school system of education. Ayres was a supporter of Joseph Ritner, the Anti-Masonic party candidate elected Governor of Pennsylvania in November 1835.